Fighting fit

Women are turning to martial arts to stay healthy in these challenging times, writes Khursheed Dinshaw

A Kalari or design space used for Kalaripayattu. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Covid-19 has resulted in a lot of uncertainty, a lack of physical movement and mental fogginess. As people learn to adapt to the new normal, martial arts are being practised by women albeit, with modifications, to remain physically and mentally active. Three such martial arts that have gained popularity during these testing times are Kalaripayattu, Gatka and Mardani Khel.


Kalaripayattu is considered one of the oldest martial arts in the world. The word comes from the two words of Kalari and Payattu. Kalari means a gymnasium or martial arts school and Payattu refers to exercise in Malayalam. Primarily there are two styles of this martial art — the northern style and the southern style. 

While body control exercises are the focus of the northern style, the southern style is more about fighting barehanded. This martial art provides speed, strength and accuracy to women players like Manju Raj Medakunnu Melayil and Kavya Haridas from Calicut.

“It also helps to calm the mind and to fight against stress, something that we all need to do in current times. It also trains the body to react to situations swiftly and in a precise manner without getting bogged down,” they believe. This is something that we can adapt to in this Covid-19 era, adds Kavya.



The word Gatka refers to a stick which is 39 inches long with a maximum thickness of 1 inch. A variety of sticks, swords, bows and arrows, daggers, hammers, axes, maces, shields and rods with iron balls at their end are used in this Sikh martial art.

The main garment worn is called a bana. Women players wear leggings beneath the bana and have their head covered. Some players wear a multi-layered pyramid made of circular chains on their head.

On one side of their waist is the katar or dagger. A bag on the side to keep accessories and a waistband completes the attire. Anmol Kaur, a silver medal state player adds, “Apart from keeping me mentally fit, Gatka instils discipline, concentration, enthusiasm, energy and self-confidence. In the current scenario where lockdown has been imposed, we have time on our hands as schools are closed. Women should make their health a priority. In today’s day and age, self-defence and safety have become even more important as everyone is wearing masks so it becomes difficult to identify assaulters or chain snatchers.” Gatka is a great cardio booster and stress buster and also helps to tone up muscles.

Weapons used in Mardani Khel

Mardani Khel

Mardani Khel is the martial art that was promoted during the reign of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in Maharashtra. In essence, it is an art of living life by not giving up but standing up after a fall or after difficult situations like the unforeseen coronavirus. 

Two interesting weapons used during the time of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and which are still used today are Madu and Maratha boomerang. Women performers wear the traditional saree called nauvari. Almost 40 kinds of nauvari can be worn.

The length of the saree is nine (nau) var where 1 var =1.25 metres.
14-year-old Sneha Zure practices Mardani Khel and opines that it helps constructively pass her time. She adds, “I have been a martial arts player since I was 3 years old. During the lockdown, I did not get bored. Instead, I focus on my stamina, strength and patience by performing Mardani Khel.

I use all the weapons but the sword is my favourite. Rani Lakshmi Bai and Jijabai Shahaji Bhosale were great women warriors who were experts at wielding the sword. They inspire me.”

Priti Jadhav, a Mardani Khel teacher at Sarvoday Mardani Khel Prashikshan Sanstha in Kolhapur learnt the martial art form in college. She explains, “In this uncertain time, I practice more. I do yoga, pranayam and warm-up exercises which have been passed down by rishis. These are all a part of Mardarni Khel. They keep me physically fit, boost my immunity and help to control my thoughts. If we make exercise a part of our daily life and adopt the principles given in our culture,
we will remain fit. It all starts with the mind and passes down to the body.”